The new school year is right around the corner, and that means big changes are coming.
Summer is the perfect time to build your new language skill because free time is plenty. But once school starts, the hours not spent in a classroom are often filled with homework, sports, and other after-school activities.
So what happens to that incredible language learning habit you built during your three-month break?
Let’s be real for a moment: language learning takes time, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. During the summer that time can be filled with popcorn-at-the-ready while binge-watching your favorite show in your new language, game-like, and immersive vocabulary learning, or outings to show off your Spanish to your friends at the restaurant down the street. When school rolls around…not so much.
But you’re here. And that means you love your new language enough to do what’s needed to keep learning throughout the school year.
In the field of writing, there are two types of writers — the planner and the pantser. Now bear with me for a moment here, I’ll get to how this relates to language learning in a moment. You see, the planner is the type who prefers to outline their story first, getting as many of the details in place and doing as much of the research beforehand as possible, and then they write. The pantser, on the other hand, prefers to just sit down and start writing. All the cleanup, fact-checking, and outlining happens later.
These terms also fit really well when it comes to language learning. The pantser is the learner who just picks up resources and studies, without any clear direction or planning. The planner, in contrast, prefers to figure out exactly what they plan to do and then create a curriculum to get there.
During the summer, it doesn’t matter which of these you are. With limited time during the school year, however, you’ll want to spend as much time as you can with the language itself. So use these last few days of summer to become a planner, not a pantser.
You don’t want to waste precious energy on figuring out how to learn your language or what to use to study it. Do your planning before school starts so all of your language learning time is spent actually learning. If you don’t, you may find yourself without a next step later down the line. And if you’re too busy with school, your language studies may drop off.
You’ll also want to spend some time figuring out what is most important to you when it comes to why you’re learning the language. Knowing this will help you pick the right resources so you don’t spend time learning things that don’t keep you on a direct path towards your goals.
Here are some tactical to-do’s to get ready:
Does your school schedule seem to eat up every spare moment?
One of the biggest complaints I hear from would-be language learners is: “I don’t have enough time.” But is that really the case?
As a student, you may find your evenings filled with cram sessions or late night essay writing, but this might not be because you don’t have enough time. It might be because you need to get better at managing the time that you have.
In his book “How to be a Straight-A Student”, Cal Newport shares that students should be doing consistent, daily work in advance of due dates so you don’t spend time “pseudo-working” as you pull all-nighters.
But how do you know if you’re doing “deep work” or “pseudo-work”?
“Pseudo work” happens when you try to do long, uninterrupted study sessions — usually anything more than an hour. And this usually happens because you skip studying or writing your paper for a few days, only to have to catch up on it later. “Deep work” happens when you do short, highly focused study sessions, and these happen daily.
The best way to figure out what you’re doing is by taking a day or two to track exactly where your time is going. Grab a notebook and write down how you spend your time. I recommend keeping track in 15-minute increments. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing every 15 minutes to write down what you’ve worked on, but take a moment every hour or so.
The key here is to be brutally honest. If you spent 30 minutes scrolling through your Instagram feed, make sure you add it to your log. If you spent 45 minutes chatting with your friends online, log it. If you spent two hours catching up on your history project but got distracted by notifications on your phone for some part of that, be sure to include it.
Here’s a quick look at my morning thus far:
By doing this, I can quickly pick out where I get distracted or where I can pair language learning with other tasks. For example, I can listen to audio lessons while driving.
Here’s how to track your time:
In addition to the language you’ve learned at home, you may find yourself studying another language at school, but these languages may not always be the same. It’s possible to find yourself in a Spanish class at school, but learning Korean at home, or even Italian at home and French at school.
Whatever the combination may be, you may find you’re mixing up the languages or you’re unsure of how to balance your time with both.
First, while the language you’re learning outside of school may be more “fun” and have a lot of benefits later down the road, the language you’re learning in school should take priority. You don’t want to sacrifice your grades.
If you find you’re overwhelmed, or confusing the languages, here are a few tips to get you through it:
Real focus is something that often seems to be in short supply. Even when we’re sitting down to do the work, there are a million other things pulling us in other directions. Alerts on our phones, knowing a project is due and you should be working on it; your parents calling you for dinner, the ads on a website you’re browsing, or that list of chores, all chip away at our ability to give our all to the task at hand.
So how do you improve your focus?
When you started learning your new language, every new word made it feel like you knew so much more. But after that first thousand or so words, it feels as though your progress slowly grinds to a halt. You see, when you learn your first word, you have 100% more knowledge of your language than you did before. When you learn your 100th word, that’s only 1% more knowledge. And when you learn your 3,000th, that’s only 0.03%.
It’s normal to feel like you’re learning less, but the truth is every word counts. Even though each new word is only a small part of your total knowledge in a language, it still plays a part and adds to that total knowledge.
These plateaus happen throughout your language learning, and when a good part of your energy is (rightfully) taken up by school, these can feel even tougher to break through than usual.
Here’s what you can do:
And finally, but most importantly, make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep is when your brain has the time to digest all of the awesome new language knowledge you gained during the day. It’s also what helps you regenerate the energy and focus you need to get back to it the following day.
Now I’ll turn it over to you. How do you keep up your language studies during the school year? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
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